Hollywood’s Stinger Missile

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this review is posted at The American Thinker.

“Reagan specifically urged the supplying of U.S. shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles that can shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.”

—Martin Schram, Washington Post, January 10, 1980

Last week I drove to a nearby theatre to catch “Charlie Wilson’s War,” starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, developed by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin of the television drama, “The West Wing,” and directed by Mike Nichols. The movie is based on a George Crile book by the same name about former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-TX), who helped fund the Afghanistan rebels who defeated the Soviet Union. Wilson was a moderate to conservative Democrat, a profane, hard-drinking, womanizing, anti-communist who was indeed—as the movie makes abundantly clear—crucially important to providing a huge amount of covert support to the Mujahedin rebels.

While all of this is true, it is (at best) half the story—maybe even a quarter. It helps explain what happened in the legislature, in the Democrat-controlled Congress, where the likes of Wilson were a godsend to counter the San Francisco Democrats and Massachusetts liberals who turned a blind eye to the communist threat.

Yet, the central failure of the movie is its exaggeration of the influence of Charlie Wilson at the expense of individuals equally to far more influential. The rest of the story is that it was the Reagan administration, and particularly the likes of CIA director Bill Casey, National Security Adviser Bill Clark, Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger, and Ronald Reagan himself—plus numerous aides—who were the driving force behind supplying the Mujahedin. It is an obvious reflection of the liberal biases of Sorkin and Nichols—and the CBS News / “60 Minutes”-affiliated contributors—that Casey in particular, incredibly, is not referenced even once. This is an outrage, and another stunning example of how liberals in Hollywood literally create their own fictional versions of history. They don’t seem to realize, nor care, that this undermines the merit of their overall work.

In one maddening scene, Charlie Wilson asks Gust Avrakotos about America’s strategy in Afghanistan. “Well, strictly speaking, we don’t have one,” says Avrakotos, “but me and three others are working on it.”

This simply was not true. The Reagan administration was doing precisely what Wilson and Avrakotos wanted. This is clear through official White House policy directives produced by Bill Clark’s NSC and signed by Reagan, such as, among others, NSDD-32 (May 20, 1982) and NSDD-75 (January 17, 1983), not to mention real-world action like Bill Casey’s brash order to CIA officers: “go out and kill me 10,000 Soviets until they give up.” The Reagan team did this as part of a multi-layered assault to undermine the USSR and win the Cold War.

Then there was the haymaker: NSDD-166, signed by President Reagan in the spring of 1985, which dealt solely with killing the Soviets in Afghanistan. As one Reagan official described it, the directive expressed “a clear policy of seeking to defeat the Soviet Union … and force a Soviet withdrawal.” It committed U.S. security agencies to use “all means available” to assist the Muj in defeating the USSR. It was through NSDD-166 that the onslaught of weapons direly needed by the Mujahedin finally flowed, and through which the silver bullet was unleashed: Stinger missiles. The Stingers reversed the war instantaneously, and led to an ultimate Soviet retreat.

Ronald Reagan had floated the idea of Stingers as early as January 9, 1980, while campaigning for president in Pensacola, Florida—a year before he was sworn in as president. This was reported by Martin Schram the next day in the Washington Post. Reagan, Schram noted, said the United States should supply the weapons through Pakistan—an idea that the movie maintains was discovered by Charlie Wilson. In fact, remarkably, Reagan made this suggestion only two weeks after the Soviets invaded, and well before the moment in the movie—which begins its chronology on April 6, 1980—when Charlie Wilson asks, “Tell me what you need to shoot down those Soviet gunships.” Ronald Reagan had answered that question well before Wilson thought to ask it. Once he became president, his administration fought to get the Stingers into rebel hands.

The makers of “Charlie Wilson’s War” had access to this information. To cite just one example of what was readily available, in July 1992 the Washington Post ran a widely read front-page, two-part series that laid out directives like NSDD-166.

The Soviets certainly knew who was responsible. Newspapers like Izvestia carried angry articles with titles like “Aggressors and Hypocrites” (March 1, 1985), excoriating not Charlie Wilson but the Reagan administration for hammering them in Afghanistan.

In sum, this slight of the Reagan administration is the movie’s fatal flaw. It is a shame that in their zeal to elevate Charlie Wilson—who I do not begrudge his due credit—Sorkin and Nichols and crew utterly ignore the folks who deserve the most credit for defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan and around the world. If they are interested in telling the full story, I recommend a sequel: “Ronald Reagan’s War.”